Normally, especially as of late, when she steps in front of a mirror an automatic mental process kicks into gear that prepares her to greet her older self. It buffers her, dulls the shock. But in the shopwindow, she has caught herself off guard, vulnerable to the reality undistorted by self-delusion. She sees a middle-aged woman in a drab floppy blouse and a beach skirt that doesn’t conceal quite enough of the saggy folds of skin over her kneecaps. The sun picks out the gray in her hair. And despite eyeliner, and the lipstick that defines her lips, she has a face now that a passerby’s gaze will engage and then bounce from, as it would a street sign or a mailbox number. The moment is brief, barely enough for a flutter of the pulse but long enough for her illusory self to catch up with the reality of the woman gazing back from the shopwindow. It is a little devastating. This is what aging is, she thinks as she follows Isabelle into the store, these random unkind moments that catch you when you least expect them.
Pari, from And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
This morning one of my New York friends, Cat Bradley, was describing her first experience with mile repeats. Yeah, you know what those are. Run a mile at an elevated pace, recover with a slow jog (or walk) for a few minutes, then run another mile at an elevated pace. Repeat. For as long as you can do it. Ahh, such fun.
Now Cat is young. I am old. I used to do those. I still do speedwork and intervals when I’m able. But here’s the thing: my body won’t let me do what I used to do. It’s one annoying minor injury after another. Definitely age related. My latest is a calf strain that’s kept me from putting in the miles.
Last Saturday morning I was at the church working in the garden with our spring work crew and a block away, runners gathered at the starting line. The gun goes off and the hoard runs past. I so much wanted to be with them. I love those times when you push yourself and see where you are, see what you’re made of.
And I will again. This age thing has some benefits. One, you learn patience. I’ll be back. I’ll do those long Sunday runs again. I’ll do the intervals on my lunch hour. I’ll run a few of those Saturday morning races.
I also know that I won’t be as fast as I was five years ago. I won’t run as far as I did twenty years ago. And the good thing is, I don’t want to. I love running, but I also love writing, and playing my guitar, and being with my family, and having a relaxing breakfast on Saturdays.
Still, when you’re young like Cat, you have to do it. It’s part of finding out who you are.
When I was born, my great-grandmother, Tida, was 72. By the time I was old enough to form any memories about her, she was well into her 80s. I’m sure she had the usual trouble remembering things that older people have, but she had no problem performing at least one amazing feat of memory.
When she was a child in the late 1800s, she learned many things by simple repetition, what they used to call rote. When she was in her 90s, she would sit on her porch swing on a hot summer day and, recalling her lessons of decades earlier, entertain her great-grandchildren with the story of Nanny, a poor girl who ate too much. In today’s culture, we are more sensitive to eating disorders and those who struggle with controlling their weight. And really, the story of Nanny is more about greed than it is about being overweight. Nonetheless, my apologies to anyone who may be offended by this old school-house poem. My presentation of this is not intended to be any kind of commentary about eating or obesity. It’s about my great-grandmother’s amazing mind.
Again, she was in her 90s when she would recite this entire frightening poem by memory. Thanks to Adele for transcribing the poem.
Nanny was a glutton,
not a pretty word, oh well.
But the actions of a glutton
are even worse to tell.
Perhaps there are some children
who know the meaning not.
Well, a glutton is a person
who eats an awful lot.
Nan was fat and chubby
as folks should be who eat.
Her cheeks were like big apples
and she had fat hands and feet.
At the table Nanny always
ate up her own large share.
Then she would eat her brother’s
and hang around his chair.
If anything was left,
twas eaten up by Nan.
All her family said of her,
We don’t see how she can.
She’ll make herself quite sick some day,
her family all said.
She eats of every kind of food,
rather than wholesome bread.
One day some guests her mother had.
She cooked a supper good.
Then she set the table,
and placed on it the food.
But ere the guests should sit them down,
in ran greedy Nan.
She gathered all the nice food up,
and put it in a pan.
Then to the barn she ran away
and hid behind the gate.
She put the big pan in her lap,
and ate, and ate, and ate.
Her mother came and found her,
and sent her off to bed.
“I would not care if shadowbees
came after you,” she said.
As silent on the bed
lay greedy, greedy Nan.
She heard a voice say loudly,
“Get up now, if you can.”
She looked around,
her room was full of many shadowbees.
She wondered much what she could do,
their anger to appease.
“We’ll have to stop you. Hurry up!
This greed we cannot stand!
You are the greediest girl
there is in all the land.”
They put her in a towering room,
and filled it up with food.
“Stay here until you eat it all,”
cried they in language rude.
Now Nan was nothing loath to eat,
so straightway she began
to nibble doughnuts, cakes, and cheese,
and bread bespread with jam.
Till all at once the sight of food
made her so very ill.
“I never can eat all this up.
I never, never will.”
“Go on and eat!” cried shadowbees.
“You must eat more and more.
You haven’t made a passage yet,
but halfway to the door.”
“If I eat more, I’ll surely die.”
“Eat on!” cried shadowbees.
“While you’re eating your way out,
we’ll dance beside the sea.”
So Nan was forced to eat and eat.
She grew so very stout.
That when she reached the little door,
she hardly could get out.
“The time has come,” cried shadowbees.
“To roll her out like dough.
We cannot leave her as she is,
she’s much too fat, you know.”
So off they hurried luckless Nan
and down upon the plain.
They laid her like a heap of dough
to be rolled flat again.
They took a huge, huge rolling pin.
They rolled this way and that.
They rolled her up, the rolled her down,
til she was smooth and flat.
“We’ll round her off about the size
she really ought to be!”
The King said, “I’ll attend to that.
Please leave it all to me.”
So he rounded Nanny off, nice and trim and clean.
She jumped up with a scream,
and found that all this wretched tale,
was just a horrid dream.
“Oh, shadowbees, oh shadowbess,
I will, I wll give heed
to this dream that you have sent me,
I will stop this horrid greed!”
We were sitting in my grandfather’s room at the nursing home, talking about nothing, as you tend to do.
She walked in like a scary Joan Crawford, glancing at us before looking elsewhere as she made her way to the other side of the room.
“Are you looking for someone?” one of us asked.
She stopped cold. Her eyes widened. “Maybe I am.”
It was chilling. And later, funny. A short story that would be told often.
Her name was Joanne. She hadn’t meant to be scary. She hadn’t meant to offend. She was just disoriented. As are most people in the nursing home. That might not be an accurate statement. It’s just my casual observation.
I don’t know when nursing home visits became part of our routine, but they’ve been a fairly steady occurrence for the last twenty years or so.
My great uncle was a country preacher back in the day. A stern-looking man, very conservative, but with a good sense of humor. His last months were spent in the nursing home. He did not go gentle into that good night. He would lay in his bed and yell. And curse. At the top of his lungs.
It was scary. It was funny. But most of all, it was sad. It makes you realize that life is a struggle to be the kind of person you know you should be.
My grandmother, his sister, was in the same facility, although I’m not sure if it was the same time. She spent two years there after her stroke and was as quiet and gentle as she had been at home. My grandfather and two of his sons visited her almost every day. We would talk to her, tell her about the garden, the weather, and her great-grandchildren. Most times, there was no response. The visits were more for the visitors.
There have been more relatives, friends, and neighbors.
It can be heart-breaking, especially if you think about it too much. It helps when you realize that most of the residents are living in the moment. They all want to be someplace else. We all wish they could be.
This year, we’ve visited a friend who really doesn’t want to be there. When we would show up, she wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t even look at us. This continued for weeks.
Still, we tried.
Finally, she started to warm up. And though she’s far from normal, she at least welcomes our visits. We don’t know what brought about the change, whether it was meds (or lack of meds) or just an attitude adjustment. And we know it could go back to being icy on our next visit. Even if it does, we’ll go back.
Not because we get anything out of it ourselves. It can be taxing.
Not because we’re making the lives of those we see that much better. Most of the time they’ll forget we were even there.
Do you remember the last time someone smiled when they saw you? Do you remember how that smile made you feel? Just for that moment?